I much prefer when there’s an explicit agreement between players, umps, and MLB that players police the game themselves.
In that circumstance, most players choose to act with integrity, and those who don’t are punished as per the culture of their time. Chase Utley absolutely violated the unspoken rules about how one is supposed to go about taking out a DP pivot man, hitting the ground way too late in pursuit of Ruben Tejada. The culture of the game that Utley grew up in says that he should get drilled in the ribs and yelled at as a result. That would be both “old school” and efficient.
Instead, MLB has decided (and the umps have clearly followed their lead) that everything worth caring about in baseball must have a rule attached. This leads the players (as it has in every other sport) to abandon any subjective notions of right and wrong and simply do whatever they can get away with. With cameras everywhere, “what they can get away with” is very little, and if replay expands enough, one day it will get down to “nothing”, where A.J. Ellis will no longer be able to fool the umpire by firing away a foul tip as if he’d caught it for strike three, as he did on Sunday night. With a good set of rules and the right penalties for infractions, this is probably the surest way to make baseball safe… and slow.
If I were a player, maybe I’d take that trade-off.
As a fan, I hate it. The occasional injury is worth having a game that moves along at a decent pace with a lot of personality and room for individual accountability. The “did the catcher give the runner a sliding lane?” replay is too high a price to pay for the fact that Buster Posey pivoted incorrectly when Scott Cousins came to wreck him. Baseball is entertainment, and thrives on contrast and emergent narratives — a version of baseball which forces Chase Utley and Manny Ramirez to play the same way doesn’t make for many interesting stories.
If Utley were on my team, and he and I and everyone else agreed that the penalty for a late slide was a fastball to the ribs and some angry words, and he chose to pay that price to win a playoff game, then I would be all in favor of that choice, and question the dedication of any player who didn’t make the same choice (as some certainly wouldn’t).
But there’s no agreement at all.
Some players interpret the unwritten rules as, “Don’t do dangerous plays, even if they would win a playoff game.” Some umpires interpret via precedent, others by the rulebook (which has always included ample provisions for calling Utley for obstruction on the Tejada play; they’ve just never been enforced). There’s a similar split among fans. So instead of being clearly identified as a determined but dangerous player (which he is) and getting drilled (which he can take), Chase Utley has been called everything from an old-school hero to a violent, cheating thug. It’s madness, and lots and lots of sour grapes.
I respect Noah Syndergaard for trying to handle things the way they used to be handled, and I respect Utley for not having a problem with that. The guy I can’t stand is umpire Adam Hamari, or whatever boss or supervisor encouraged him to act like that (perhaps discipline czar Joe Torre?). But maybe theirs is the way of the future, and I’m thinking like a caveman, and one day baseball will be completely free from injury and subjectivity and dramatic physical contests of any sort.
Here’s a novel idea: let’s leave it up to players who are actually risking injury.
If Alex Torres doesn’t want to get drilled by comebackers, he can wear the padded hat. If John Olerud doesn’t want to expose his surgically repaired skull, he can wear a helmet in the field. If Barry Bonds wants to hang his front elbow an inch from home plate, he can wrap it in armor. If Ruben Tejada wants to turn DPs where he can’t see the runner because of a horrible feed, he can wrap his legs in enough padding to look like the Michelin Man. If Buster Posey wants to spin into the path of a runner with his feet underneath him, let him coat his feet in lubricant so they slide instead of sticking. Let these men do whatever they want to protect themselves — and then, when they don’t, accept that as their choice.
If pitchers would rather risk brain damage than wear a silly-looking hat, then it’s not the rules that need fixing the next time a liner finds a guy’s head. If hitters eschew hand and elbow guards, then no one gets to moan about pitchers throwing inside the next time someone breaks an arm. If Tejada wants to wear his regular pants in a big spot wherein he’d attempt a blind play, then baseball is still baseball if it doesn’t work out for him.
Again, if I were a player, maybe I’d feel differently. Maybe “risk your body for the fans’ entertainment” is no more appealing on the field than it is at the steroid “clinic”. Maybe all those players telling the media “I don’t need to be coddled” are just trying to sound tough and would secretly love to be coddled. I don’t know. I’m just a fan. And as a fan, I say to Adam Hamari and Joe Torre and every other quick-trigger reactionary authority in MLB: please butt out.